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A failure lurking beneath our development

  • Published at 11:13 pm February 25th, 2020
Flood
Photo: MEHEDI HASAN

Foreign projects may not have truly helped our poor and vulnerable

Bangladesh is currently enjoying impressive economic development, and playing a crucial role in serving as an all-purpose carnival of formal and informal democratic activity. 

But with advanced economic growth, it is facing a crisis of the decoupling of social, economic, and political domains of activity, which is subsequently leading towards a destabilization leading to development failures in Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh, a “developing” nation, has developed a prime ground for flood control and agricultural intensification projects, underwritten by massive infusions of foreign institutions. But unfortunately, there has been a clear rise in the problems associated with these solutions. 

Professor Kimberley Anh Thomas from Temple University has documented how these economic development programs in Bangladesh provoke cycles of crop loss, groundwater depletion, reduced fisheries, and soil salinization in his journal article “The Problem with Solutions: Development Failures in Bangladesh and the Interests They Obscure”.

In his paper, Professor Thomas has approached questions like: “How might we conceptualize and account for the interests that shape development interventions without resorting to overdetermined interpretations of project outcomes? Furthermore, what democratic alternatives emerge from interest-oriented examinations of development?”

What is most important about a “development” project is not so much about what it fails to do but what it achieves through its “side effects” -- this can be put forward as a fact, but it is not very wise to linearly connect development practices with particular high ambitions. 

It is important to scrutinize how multifarious interests are articulated, practiced, convinced, and overlooked while identifying problems and solutions. 

Professor Thomas’s paper has framed how the foreign “solutions” introduced to southwestern Bangladesh, a region externalized by water and agro-related crises, not only have failed to restore human vulnerability to water risks, but have perpetuated and worsened them for decades.

Nearly 80% of Bangladesh’s total land area is water meadow. Natural calamities which used to happen every 20 years now recur once every five years. 

Being one of the most vulnerable nations to global climate change, it is frequently visited by natural catastrophes such as tropical cyclones, storm rushes, downpours, droughts, hurricanes, and so on. Such events involve unmatched natural and human tragedies that facilitate disease transmission, a disorder in transportation systems, and wrecking infrastructure. 

The actors beyond the complex “hydro-hazardscape” in Bangladesh have been enormously influential in shaping the institutions, policies, and structural interventions. 

The continued involvement of foreign interventions in water resource management in the face of repetitive failures to meet their programmatic objectives have raised serious questions about the interests being served.

Each decade since the 1947 Partition of India marked a new phase, which in turn bears the stains of a problemshed approach by being explicitly shaped by external “solutions.” The journey of these development failures started with the establishment of the East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority in 1959. 

Because of a prioritization of hazard mitigation over food production by UN interventions, there was a failure to recognize the difference between the northern temperate climate of the Netherlands and the monsoon-driven climate of Bangladesh by a UN Mission (which included seven US, Dutch, and British hydraulic engineers and economists), which resulted in the creation of polders -- a man-made disaster. 

So many promising solutions went wrong. Focusing on the flows of interests explains why it continues to go wrong.

Poverty, high redundancy, food deficiency, and increasing risks of climate change in Bangladesh have caught global attention as a new focal point for problemshed-oriented approaches, which has taken the form of development aid programs. 

Consequently, Bangladesh has received over $66 billion in foreign aid since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, with over $6bn sourced from USAID alone. Vast sums of foreign aid continue to flow into the country, with recent commitments by the World Bank, Netherlands, and the US approaching $3.5bn. 

The ill-fated Coastal Embankment Project (1962-1971) funded by USAID loans cost around $3m. The program’s main objective was to reduce agricultural overflows and protect US farmers from depressed global markets, which failed to serve their purpose. 

So, the risks were displaced and thrust upon the rural peasantry of Bangladesh, who suffered incapacitating food price fluctuations as a result of trade-in foodstuffs. The Blue Gold Project, though another development failure, was an important pilot project for testing the feasibility of establishing polders elsewhere in the country. 

Ironically, the labour source for polder construction included landless contracting societies (LCSs), who were displaced by earlier failed embankment projects.

In sum, these foreign-devised mega projects have been laboured by landless and disaster-affected people to establish, re-establish, and maintain the very structures that perpetuate their vulnerable conditions, and the rationale for continued flows of aid dollars into the country. 

Rather than profiting the poor and vulnerable populations, foreign engineers, consultants, suppliers, importers, and affiliated firms have been the principal beneficiaries. 

An interest-shed approach may play a role in mapping out the flow of interests and cohere around the complex, intertangled social and environmental issues. 

Rather than assuming that nature is a depoliticized set of inevitable forces in vulnerable countries, the concept of interest-sheds demonstrates how all of the natures we make are the aftermath of our own political tricks and picks.

Shooha Tabil is a climate researcher.